Physician, advocate, now Congressional candidate—she forges her own path.
Last Monday, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, a fellow Philadelphian and a Democratic candidate for US Congress in Pennsylvania’s 13th district. Dr. Arkoosh is running for the seat vacated by Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, the only female representative in either the House or the Senate from Pennsylvania. If a woman doesn’t win the seat she vacates, Pennsylvania will have 18 Congressmembers, 2 Senators—and no female representatives.
But that’s only part of the reason that Dr. Arkoosh has decided to run. As a practicing obstetric anesthesiologist for over two decades and later, president of the National Physician’s Alliance, Dr. Arkoosh’s priority, if elected, will be to continue healthcare reform. As a physician, she believes that affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege.
“I didn’t take the usual route to politics,” Dr. Arkoosh said. But she did face barriers, even in her medical career. As a girl growing up in Nebraska who aspired to be a doctor, Dr. Arkoosh said that she was discouraged even by her own mother, and lacked female role models to look up to. However, her determination to make a difference in obstetric anesthesiology was cemented early on in her residency period, when a supervising doctor refused to give a young girl pain medication during labor, citing that she needed to “feel the pain” and that perhaps she would “make a different choice next time.” Dr. Arkoosh cites this crystallizing moment as a major turning point.
“It became so clear to me at that moment that women need advocates,” Dr. Arkoosh said. “It was also the beginning of my career as a patient advocate.”
But most physicians, even those that advocate for women and patients, don’t venture into politics—and even fewer women. Dr. Arkoosh acknowledged the barriers that stand in the way of women achieving parity in government, citing the lack of female role models, challenge of large-scale fundraising for campaigns, and research that shows that women, unlike men, must be asked to run.
Dr. Arkoosh said that she personally was persuaded to work in policy by the increasing difficulty in people’s lives that she witnessed as a physician, as the uninsured faced difficult decisions like choosing between medicine and healthcare or watching health insurance run out six weeks after birth. She wanted to make a broader difference, and thus, made the decision to veer from the path of practicing to get a Master’s in Public Health at John Hopkins University, and from there, lead the National Physician’s Alliance. Dr. Arkoosh says that the courage to veer from the beaten path is often crucial for success, especially for women.
“For many women who have been successful, they have forged their own path. The typical route of whatever industry they’re working in isn’t always there for them,” Dr. Arkoosh said. “And it does require courage. But [my work in the National Physician’s Alliance] opened up this whole world of Washington to me in a way that I’d never experience before and gave me the tools and background to really think about running for office.”
Even as still a candidate for office, Dr. Arkoosh serves as an incredible leader and role model for girls interested in politics and in healthcare, as a pioneer who strays from the beaten path. When asked her advice for girls aspiring to follow in her footsteps, Dr. Arkoosh advises girls to be open to mentors of both genders, to follow their passions and to eventually take that experience into public service. Most importantly, she stresses the importance of not being afraid to take risks, even when that means changing institutions or routes.
“Don’t get caught up in the trap of ‘Maybe I’m not good enough,’” Dr. Arkoosh said. “It’s so important for women to never let go of their goals and dreams. If they find that they’re not achieving them wherever they are, they need to look other places. Almost always there’s a better fit.”
Any final words of advice for girls who seek to run for office? Dr. Arkoosh answers:
“Go for it.”